The ballots for the May 21 election arrive this week and include Curry County's proposed public safety property tax levy (Measure 8-71). Despite decades of discussion and information, we know there are still questions.
As the Curry Coastal Pilot has done several times in covering this issue, we're devoting extra space today to consolidate the current information in one place.
Is Curry County really in financial trouble?
Yes. The end of federal timber sales and then federal subsidies to replace those revenues have left the county without enough money come July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
What does this levy do?
It authorizes a five-year property tax levy for public safety: sheriff's office, jail operations, prosecution and juvenile justice. These services make up 66 percent of the current county budget.
What is the outlook for other funds, instead of a property tax levy?
President Obama has included another extension of federal subsidies in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1; Congress will write the final budget, and any funds that might be approved are not expected to be enough for Curry County's needs, or to arrive until the end of 2013.
Oregon members of Congress are pushing for a timber harvest solution on some federal lands, but even if it is approved, funds are at least three to five years away.
Because of their low property tax rates, state lawmakers see Curry and other counties as needing to solve their own problem with local funds.
Why a property tax levy?
Property taxes are Oregon's traditional form of raising funds for services that are controlled at the local level. The assumption is that having those services affects property values.
It was one of the recommendations from the Citizens Committee last year, which included more than a dozen other ideas that were too little and too late for the coming budget year. One other idea was a uniquely un-Oregon county sales tax, but the last commissioners shelved the idea just before the ballot deadline last fall due to lack of support. The "Oregon's Kitchen Table" poll this winter proved them right: a property tax levy for public safety was the more popular option.
Interestingly, one proposal in the state legislature would allow the state to impose a local income tax to address local public safety issues. That bill, however, appears to be on hold until after this month's levy elections in Curry and Josephine counties.
Why are there different rates for properties in the cities and the county?
The three cities - Brookings, Gold Beach and Port Orford - clearly benefit from countywide public safety systems. But they also have their own police departments, paid for by property taxes within the city limits. The levy recognizes that spending with a "split rate" that is unusual in Oregon. The levy difference is 13 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, or about $26 a year for a home assessed at $200,000 .
The Brookings City Council has complained that the split is not accurate, instead proposing a difference of $1, or $200 per year for the $200,000 assessed property value. The council also has some other suggestions, including a legislative override of a voter-approved state law regarding room taxes, a change in the structure of county government that voters have rejected before, and a shorter, lower property tax levy.
In addition to ignoring voter mandates, all the city council's ideas and complaints are too late: The deadlines for all those things making a difference beginning July 1 have passed.
What has the county done to avoid this?
That's a very long list since timber revenues started to decline, spanning the terms of dozens of county commissioners. The county has lobbied Congressfor federal replacement funds. It has severely cut spending.It has cut services. It has spun off county agencies to free-standing, non-profit agencies, taking those services off of property taxes. It has deferred building maintenance.
It has pursued economic development, and continues to do so, with very limited success. Remember nature-based tourism and the canopy project? Remember the golf course plans at Cape Blanco? And the meat processing plant? Even had they come to fruition, none of the revenue would have been enough to backfill the loss of timber sales or federal subsidies.
The county has put at least two property tax levies before voters, which were turned down. Authorized by the state, it has moved funds from the road department, but current commissioners plan to "repay that loan" if this levy is approved.
What happens if the levy fails?
From all we can learn, that remains to be seen.
The working presumption is that all but state-mandated services would be eliminated such as sheriff's patrols, closure of the county jail and rental of limited jail space in another county, release of juvenile offenders, and a severe drop in prosecution of crime.
We only have to look at the past year in Josephine County, where public safety services were axed last July, to see what happens very quickly: crime rates rise and prosecutions drop. How that impacts property values and insurance rates remains to be seen, but who wants to buy a home or locate a new business where crime rates are rising? And what will actuarial tables do when homeowners are submitting more claims for their losses?
The campaign slogan for the Josephine County levy says it all: "Restore Justice."
A bill has been introduced in the Oregon Legislature that would allow the state to take charge if a public safety disaster is declared in a county. The state would be permitted to determine the appropriate level of services and collect the funds locally. How the details of that proposal would emerge into actual law remains to be seen - it might be an income tax or a percentage of all the other locally approved property taxes in the county. We are told, however, that something to address the emergency would win support in the Legislature if either the Curry or Josephine levies fail.
What does the Pilot recommend?
This levy is the last chance to keep public safety services locally controlled at reasonable costs. This is the deadline for avoiding the catastrophe that has been coming for so long.
Everyone wishes there was a permanent solution, but there is nothing else in sight that would keep deputies and prosecutors on the job as of July 1.
No one likes higher taxes, but without public safety we will clearly pay the price in higher crime, higher insurance rates, and lower property values.
Local voters and city councils may dislike any solution the state might impose if the levy fails. We are convinced state lawmakers will not allow the state's reputation - and thus its economy - to be tarnished by lawlessness in rural Oregon.
In short, we recommend a "Yes" vote - to protect our local control, to protect our property values, and to protect our safety.